Monday, 8 July 2019

Growing up Jewish in Antwerp

This past week I taught children's literature summer school. It is in itself an exciting experience that deserves a separate blog post, but I want to write about a particular part of it that I enjoyed very much.

After my last year's experiment with a walking seminar, the summer school convenor asked whether they could borrow the idea and organise some for their participants. I agreed to lead one of the walks, and because I was to teach fairy tales and fantasy, I expected my walk to have something to do with one or both of these topics. However, I was assigned a walk titled “Growing up Jewish in Antwerp”. I am always open to learning something new, and it was totally new to me that Antwerp has the fourth largest Jewish community in the world outside Israel, after New York, London and Paris.

I did my homework, reading two chapters provided from an autobiography depicting life in a contemporary Jewish family – far away from my lived experience, as far away as a fairy-tale world. I also read some stuff on Jewish history in Antwerp specifically – otherwise I am relatively well familiar with the history of Jews in Europe. I was not asked to design the itinerary, and I had a local student as a guide. But based on my Hadrian's wall experience, I prepared some questions and activities.

I knew nothing about my walking companions, nor about their previous knowledge or interests. But they were obviously curious enough to choose this walk rather than “Chocolate” or “Children as consumers”. They were very young; I felt ancient in their company. They didn't know much, so I felt that with my patchy knowledge I was an expert. I quickly decided to play it by ear. I told them that, contrary to the instructions given to other walkers, we would start walking in silence, just using all our senses: looking, listening, smelling, touching (eventually even tasting as you will see). I don't know what I myself had expected, but turning from a busy central street full of shoppers into a quiet, almost empty street of diamond shops was like going through a portal into a different world (a bit of fantasy after all). As the first exercise, I asked my walkers to share what they had noticed, and it was, not surprisingly, clothes – and we discussed how clothes are used to signal identity, which can both protect, emphasise belonging and expose. We read a plaque on the Portuguese synagogue, bizarrely squeezed between high-rises of steel and glass, in memory of victims of terrorism in 1981. We reflected on the fact that persecution of Jews is not an issue of the distant past. I asked whether they had noticed that the entrance to the street had a barrier and security cameras.

We walked on, meeting women wearing wigs and boys wearing sidelocks. One boy hopping off a school bus quickly replaced his kippah with a baseball cap, changing, or at least shifting identity.

We reached Kleinblatt, the famous Jewish bakery, and bought some blueberry buns. Now was the time to taste! But it was also time for a written exercise. My companions had not expected it at all. We could not find a bench so we sat on the grass in the middle of a heavily trafficked boulevard. I told them to switch off their senses – except the taste of the bun – and write a short text: a journal entry, a postcard home, a tourist ad, a police report, a poem; from an outsider perspective reflecting their first impression of the space and place we had just traversed.

I also wrote a piece:

        This is where I could have been.
        This is where I am…
        in another universe.

I was quite emotional. I told them they could share if they wanted, but didn't have to. They were happy to share. We moved on, and I asked them to try to perceive the environment as if they were insiders, young people growing up Jewish in Antwerp. We passed the Romi-Goldmuntz synagogue. We stopped by the Holocaust monument. I asked them to imagine how, as young Jewish people today, they would constantly hear stories of ancestors who perished during Shoah.

We did another writing exercise, from an insider perspective, and they admitted that they found it difficult. My piece was:

I wish when my daughter grows up she will go far, far away. I wish I could have, but I followed my parents' wishes. I don't want her to follow my wishes. I want her to make wishes of her own.

By then it was almost dinner time, and I suggested having a meal in a place that was on our itinerary, Beni Falafel. Another multisensory experience. We summarised our walk briefly. They said again that the written assignments were unexpected and enjoyable. It made me happy.

My own summary was, once again, that embodied learning is beneficial, that students are surprised when encountering it, but find it fruitful. Of course I also reflected on what I had seen – and I don't think I had seen anything really like this, apart from Jerusalem, not even in New York. What does it actually mean, growing up Jewish in Antwerp? 



Blueberry buns at Kleinblatt bakery. Photo: Krzysztof Maciej Rybak

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